With the torrent of so-called reality TV shows about antiques and antique hunting these days, there’s been a renewed interest in the hobby, especially among younger people, which is a good thing. These shows have also kindled a burning desire on the part of many people to know just how much their stuff is worth.
We are in an era where most of us have too much stuff. Parents of baby boomers are passing down their belongings. The boomer generation itself is downsizing, your kids don’t want somebody else’s old stuff so you want to sell it but you don’t know if it’s trash or treasure.
You need to find out what similar items have sold for recently to determine a fair market value. The definition of fair market value is: What a willing, informed, unpressured buyer would pay a willing, informed, unpressured seller in the market place. Finding all that information requires a lot of research or experience.
You try to get information from as many sources as possible, the Internet, books, friends and TV shows. That’s why there are so many antiques shows on TV now.
At their best, these shows educate and inform the viewer. The experts at the Roadshows, the pickers travelling the countryside and the characters that fight over storage lockers have a lot of knowledge and they’ll dole it out, right after the commercial break. At their worst these shows devolve in little more than wrestling matches (complete with alleged fakery) and become too focused on money.
The money is important, that’s why we watch, but all too often the prices are just made up, without any justification. The storage wars series are the worst offenders; somebody will just pull something out of a box and immediately declare (after a commercial break) “ooh, this is worth $500 easy”. Usually that figure is thrown out just to impress the doubting partner and, of course, the TV audience. The cost of selling it is not taken into account.
Even the venerable and respected Antiques Roadshows will play a bit fast and loose with values. The experts will wisely give a price range, because nobody really knows what it will sell for until it’s sold, but throw in qualifiers like “for insurance purposes”. That means this is the figure you give your insurance company because in theory it may cost that much to replace this exact item should it be destroyed. In that scenario the buyer is under pressure, so it’s not a fair market value.
Even when they give a fair market value you have to remember that these experts are dealers at the top of the antique food chain. The price they can sell something for is not the price you or I could sell it for.
For these, and many other reasons, TV shows are not the best place to find out what your valuable heirlooms are worth.
Until the Internet came along collectors would use catalogues to find values. They are still a good reference but, because the publishers are in the business of selling catalogues, they are biased toward higher prices. It’s been a general rule for years that if you want a realistic value of an object take the catalogue price and divide it by three. Today, in a depressed market, you might divide it in half again.
Friends are another great resource; a friend won’t steer you wrong, at least not intentionally. Everybody has at least one friend who will tell them what to sell their stuff for. However before taking their advice to heart you should ask yourself three questions. Is this person a professional antiques dealer? Has he or she actually sold a similar item in the last decade? And finally, would your friend, or anyone your friend knows, buy it from you for that price? If the answer to any of these questions is No then thank your friend for their helpful advice, tuck it away in the back of your mind, then forget it.
The Internet has given us far more access to information than we had twenty years ago but we still have to process that information, know how to use it, and when to ignore it. You will find all kinds of prices and valuations all over the Internet but they’re mostly what people are asking for things, not what they sold them for.
eBay is still the largest marketplace and it is an excellent resource but many people just check current auctions or Buy It Now prices, which are meaningless. You need an account to see selling prices and some people fear signing up but it’s free and you don’t need to give them your credit card number unless you want to be a seller. Just set up a user name and password, log on and do your search. Check completed listings, the prices in red are ones that did not sell, only the ones in green actually sold. There you’ll see the vast majority of Buy It Now listings didn’t sell, presumably because the price was too high.
Of course if you have a real heirloom, jewellery, precious stones or fine artwork, you should have them professionally appraised. Just remember, appraisers give values “for insurance purposes”, not fair market value. Also, avoid the travelling “Appraisal Roadshows” that blow into town for a weekend offering to appraise your coins and jewellery. Most of them are scams; their goal is to buy those items for a tiny fraction of their real value.
In the end, your stuff is worth what someone will pay you for it. Do your research, ask people who have experience then decide if you want to sell it yourself, wholesale it to a trusted dealer (who will usually offer about a third of its potential value) or keep it and enjoy it.
Reality TV shows make fine entertainment; but they’re not real.